With over 1,400 people at the third World-Wide Web conference held in Darmstadt, Germany April 10-14, 1995, delegates and organisers alike were left in no doubt as to the popularity and impact the Web has made in the year since the first conference.
Proceedings and Hot Topics — The event had a real "buzz" about it. As usual, the most interesting part was in the personal contacts made, the corridor discussions and the more informal aspects of the program.
Keynotes from Silicon Graphics and Alan Kay of Apple were especially thrilling. Alan Kay delivered a humorous and thought-provoking view of the development of media in general, and how the Web fits into context. He issued a warning that the technology base of HTML needs to improve dramatically – specifically through the adoption of a more sophisticated object-based architecture. He expressed fear that the WWW world is in danger of foisting an obsolete technology on the world just as IBM set back personal computers and operating systems ten years with the adoption of MS-DOS. His comments seem to be taken seriously, which in my opinion is a good sign.
The event was well-organised, although plagued with technical problems owing to limited bandwidth (we think the entire German Internet ground to a halt last week!). Apple re-announced its Apple Internet Servers; claiming to be the first non-Unix platform to offer all features normally found on Unix-based HTTP servers. The Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics had a nifty WYSIWYG HTML editor for the Mac called Webtor, and SoftQuad’s HoTMetaL PRO [a much-touted HTML editor that has gotten mediocre early comments from Mac users -Adam] was available, with the Mac version just released.
Conference proceedings (and information about other Web conferences) are available online.
Several issues were hot topics for the conference, including Web security, standards and future standards (and violations thereof), HTML authoring and tools, marketing and commercialisation, localisation and foreign language materials, and semantic objects and general "objectising" of the Web. A couple specific technologies got a lot of attention, especially VRML, Silicon Graphics’ WebForce and Open Inventor, Sun Microsystems’ Hot Java, and Microsoft Network.
VRML is Real — A big revelation for me was that VRML – Virtual Reality Modeling Language – is available and working today. VRML is essentially HTML expanded to three-dimensional space. The developer’s objective is "to eliminate the user interface" by creating a virtual world that users are comfortable with navigating. You want to buy some jeans? Enter the mall, walk down the corridor and enter the Levi’s factory outlet shop.
As the speaker, Mark Pesce, jokingly alluded, "it’s a bit like Doom meets home shopping." You can do nifty things like render a 3-D scene, rotate it, and find hot spots within (links to HTML are displayed in a neighboring Web browser) Best of all, you can do it all with a simple 486 and no additional hardware, and good content already exists to try it out. VRML 1.0 is to be finalised 02-May-95, with a version 1.1 in the near future. Developers hope to get a draft specification for the WWW4 conference in Boston this December.
SGI’s Open Inventor was used as the standard for the ASCII file format; however VRML does not require a Silicon Graphics machine or software for use or authoring. A Macintosh browser will allegedly be available "this summer."
Why is this cool? I will put my usual commercial slant on the picture: for businesses (like mine) which pull together virtual communities typified by members who may not even own a computer, anything that simplifies the interaction with the utterly foreign concept of "information space" is of tremendous practical benefit. I am able to create a metaphor for our user community which – if properly done – should be easier to navigate than an online menu.
Ease of use and growth are directly correlated – Mark Pesce presented compelling statistics supporting this – thus a "VR-enabled" virtual community could have a profound market advantage over one using conventional Internet tools. This is a case of gee whiz technology which could fit real business needs like a glove. A data glove, that is.
[Just to play devil’s advocate, there are many who have doubts about VRML enhancing ease of use. Some argue that the skills to navigate an onscreen 3-D environment are no more intuitive for non-computer users than a keyboard is for someone who can write but who has never typed. -Geoff]